October 6, 1906– Janet Gaynor was a superstar of the silent screen. She won the very first Academy Award, in 1927, for the three films Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven and Street Angel (that’s how they did it at the start of the Academy’s giving of awards). She held the record as the youngest Best Actress winner for almost 60 years.
Sunrise is my favorite silent film, one of my favorites of any genre really. It is a rich, strange, gorgeous film. Directed by the great gay visionary F.W. Murnau, his first Hollywood film after much success in Europe, he shows what a true artist from the silent era could accomplish cinematically.
Unlike most other actors from the silent era, Gaynor successfully made the transfer to sound films. She was Oscar nominated again for the original and best version of A Star Is Born (1937) with Fredric March, directed by William Wellman.
In the 1930s, Gaynor was the highest paid female in Hollywood. She made 36 films in 10 years for Fox Studios, including: Daddy Long Legs (1931) Delicious (1932) State Fair (1933) and The Farmer Takes A Wife (1934). She was shining in light comedies and musicals that exploited her special qualities of innocence, vulnerability and natural sweetness, but she had real acting chops.
Fox used Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in a series of 11 romantic melodramas and light comedies. As a box-office incentive of sorts, studio publicists and the fan magazines came up with a Farrell-Gaynor off-screen love affair as well. Never mind the fact that the two were not lovers, in fact they were both homos. Farrell was also mayor of Palm Springs from 1948 to 1953. They had terrific on-screen chemistry and were friendly in real life, and for the sake of their careers, more than happy to oblige photographers with pictures of the two of them canoodling.
Gaynor may have frequently played the naive waif in films, but in real life she was quite worldly and rather tough stuff. An early advocate for better roles and more money, she did the seemingly unthinkable by going on strike against Fox Studios, paving the way for future stars to throw around their clout.
Gaynor was also a gifted painter, doing mostly pictures of florals. She had several solo shows of her work at galleries in Palm Springs, Chicago and NYC.
She moved to Brazil and lived there nearly full time in the 1950s and 1960s. This seems to have been a way to get away from the gossip magazines that had begun paying attention to her special closeness to Broadway star Mary Martin, who had a farm right next to Gaynor’s in Brazil. All three of Gaynor’s husbands were gay. The second was MGM’s legendary costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, whose credits ran simply as “Gowns By Adrian”. Gaynor was noted for her demure femininity on screen, but she was a feisty butch thing in real life. Adrian made the trousers and Gaynor wore them. The couple had a son, Robin Gaynor Adrian. Rumor had it that during labor, doctors told Adrian his wife might lose the baby, to which he replied:
“Oh no, I’ll have to go through that again!”.
William Mann’s terrific, juicy, meticulously researched book Behind The Screen: How Gays And Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969 (2001) says that Gaynor wasn’t bisexual, but a real lifelong lesbian, seriously involved with at least two other stars, fellow silent film actor Margaret Livingston and Martin. Cutie pie actor Robert Cummings once quipped:
“Janet Gaynor’s husband was Adrian, the MGM fashion designer. But her wife was Mary Martin.”
Late in life she went back to work. In 1980, Gaynor played Maude in a Broadway stage version of the film Harold And Maude (1971) which ran for just four performances, although Gaynor received enthusiastic reviews. She filmed an episode of the television series The Love Boat (1977-1986), sadly her last screen appearance. In 1982, she toured in the play On Golden Pond, her final acting role.
In 1984, a San Francisco taxi that Gaynor and Mary Martin were riding in was hit by a drunk driver. The serious crash killed Martin’s manager and injured the other passengers. Gaynor was left with 11 broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, pelvic fractures, an injured bladder and a damaged kidney. Gaynor would die two years later from complications from her injuries. She was 77 years old when she took that final bow.
Always intensely private, Gaynor’s acting work was her legacy, as she probably would have wished. It remains a powerful record even today. If she was forced to live a closeted life, like so many actors of her era, at least did it on her own terms during her time in the spotlight.